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US clears alert plan to include foreigners

WASHINGTON -- During the recent high-threat terror alert, a communication breakdown led French officials to allow a plane to take off for the United States even though US authorities had asked that it be held because of security concerns.

The incident, disclosed by Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson in an interview, has helped bring about changes in the way US officials talk to foreign governments during terror threats.

In the December incident, the National Targeting Center in Virginia had worked for 90 minutes to verify the backgrounds of everyone aboard the jet but still had questions about two or three passengers when it was learned the plane had departed. US officials hurried to complete their checks.

Long before the jet approached US air space, it was determined that none of the passengers posed a security risk.

It was an example of the communication problems that have occurred when the US government responds to terrorist threats. Some foreign officials have complained that US officials overreact to intelligence, needlessly causing fear and disrupting flights.

A senior French official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that while the French have had a good working relationship with the FBI and CIA, the Homeland Security Department is far less experienced and sometimes appears overly cautious.

US officials cannot block other countries from allowing planes to take off. But they can forward information about potential threats or concerns about passengers and ask other governments to cancel flights or hold the planes. US authorities can deny it entry into American air space.

A week after the threat alert was lowered, Hutchinson went to Brussels to smooth things over with United Kingdom and French officials, as well as to discuss ways to streamline the exchange of information. Foreign officials are to be included in more discussions.

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